Sherman leads Notre Dame men past Yellowjackets

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Operating without the worry of deciphering a double team Wednesday and at ease with a pinkie finger that bothered him the previous four games, Notre Dame power forward Garrick Sherman got back to work.

Serious work.

Guarded one-on-one much of the night, a rarity for him this Atlantic Coast Conference season, Sherman busted free from a four-game shooting/scoring slump, which coincided with a chip fracture in his finger. He delivered a game-high 21 points to help the Irish get back into one of those coveted one-game league win streaks with a 65-62 victory over Georgia Tech.

Sherman had shot 13-of-39 from the floor and scored 29 total points the previous four games. That included the Feb. 11 game against Clemson when he was injured in the opening minutes. Good from nearly the get-go Wednesday, Sherman connected on 10 of 15 shots in 33 minutes for his first double-figure scoring game since the Feb. 8 loss to North Carolina.

“It definitely felt better, learning to play with it,” Sherman said of the finger, still wrapped but not as heavily as usual. “I wasn’t afraid it was going to pop out on me (which happened every time he made a fist) so I was able to play a little more comfortably.

“It was nice to go one-on-one (and) break out of my mini-slump.”

Georgia Tech also seldom doubled Sherman during the teams’ first meeting Jan. 11 in Atlanta. That allowed him to go for 13 points and 12 rebounds, and also saw the Irish get 36 points in the paint in a five-point loss.

“Today I shot a little bit better,” Sherman said, “And we got the win.”

His work and that of fellow power forwards Tom Knight (six points, eight rebounds) and Zach Auguste (four points, four rebounds) allowed the three bigs to combine for 31 points and 17 rebounds as the Irish scored 42 points in the paint and improved to 15-14, 6-10 ACC.

“Really helps us,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of the night his bigs enjoyed. “We didn’t get much of that since Boston College and we need it. It’s really important for them to give us a presence.”

The win snapped Notre Dame’s two-game league losing streak.

Wednesday’s win was No. 300 at Notre Dame for Brey in his 14th season in South Bend. He became the third coach in school history to hit 300. The guy who owns the school record of 393, Digger Phelps, worked the game as an ESPN color commentator.

George Keogan won 327 games during his tenure (1923-46).

Brey won his first game at Notre Dame against Sacred Heart on Nov. 18, 2000.

“It means a lot,” Brey said of 300. “To be at a place as long as I have and have the support that I’ve had, coaching the kind of kids that I get here. … of course, we’ve been pretty darn good.”

Brey needs one win – which could come Saturday in the regular-season home finale against Pittsburgh – for his 400th all-time victory.

In a season where very little has been very easy for Notre Dame, Wednesday was no exception. The Irish trailed by as many as 11 points the first 12-plus minutes before mustering some stops out of their zone defense, dictating tempo and getting a few easy transition looks and going up two at halftime.

After staggering to 11 points the first 12:19, Notre Dame found its scoring sea legs by going with a lineup that featured Knight and Sherman together to get 22 the final 7:41 of the first half.

“You get some easy buckets in transition, all of a sudden, you believe a little bit,” Brey said. “We were flat-out a mess there for a while.”

Notre Dame led by as many as nine in the second half, and was seemingly on cruise control when up seven with 2:17 remaining.

Robert Carter Jr. soon made it interesting. Really interesting.

Carter connected on two challenged 3s within 46 seconds to pull the Yellow Jackets (13-15; 4-11) within one and put a whole lot of game pressure back on the home team. Notre Dame’s previous two home league games – against Clemson and Boston College – went to double overtime and overtime, with the Irish winning each time.

Just when it looked like victory No. 15 was a lock, a little more work, and lot of sweat, were required.

“With our team, nothing is going to be easy,” said senior guard Eric Atkins, who scored 17 points with four rebounds and four assists. “We’re always prepared for these types of games. We’ve done a better job of pulling them out.

“We’re pretty good down the stretch here.”

For the Irish, it was no big deal if a third-straight home game would go to the wire – and perhaps beyond. But junior captain Pat Connaughton made sure otherwise.

Stepping to the foul line in a one-point game and 23.8 seconds remaining, Connaughton connected on both free throws. He admitted afterward to hearing a lone Georgia Tech fan shouting from somewhere off to his right and behind the Irish basket to miss. When he made the first, Connaughton offered a smile as the fan went silent, then stepped up as she hollered again, and knocked in the second.

“It didn’t bother me. I focused. I like those situations,” said Connaughton, who offered a stat line (nine points, six assists, eight rebounds in 39 minute) that Brey really liked. “Plus I had Digger over there on the sideline. He would have killed me had I missed two free throws.”

Carter then had two really good, really clean, really makeable, really unexplainable chances from 3 in the final nine seconds. Both bounced away.

“We got a pretty good look there,” said Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory.

Yellow Jackets guard Trae Golden, who ironically hit the decisive bucket – a 3-pointer – against the Irish in Atlanta, staggered through an 0-for-10 shooting night. Still working his way back from a groin injury that cost him his starting spot the previous three weeks, Golden played 31 minutes but had only two assists to show for it.

“We did a good job of just finding him and stopping him in transition,” Atkins said. “Last game, he got a lot of easy things in transition. We did a better job.”

GEORGIA TECH (13-15): Carter, Jr. 8-16 0-0 19, Miller 2-7 2-4 6, Georges-Hunt 3-8 6-7 13, Golden 0-10 0-0 0, Heyward 1-2 0-0 3, Bolden 3-5 0-0 9, Stephens 2-5 0-0 6, Holsey 3-6 0-0 6. Totals 22-59 8-11 62.

NOTRE DAME (15-14): Austin Burgett 1-2 0-0 2, Garrick Sherman 10-15 1-2 21, Eric Atkins 6-13 1-2 17, Pat Connaughton 3-11 2-2 9, Steve Vasturia 2-5 0-0 4, VJ Beachem 0-0 0-0 0, Demetrius Jackson 1-4 0-0 2, Tom Knight 2-4 2-2 6, Zach Auguste 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 27-58 6-8 65.

Halftime — Notre Dame 33-31. 3-Point Goals — Georgia Tech 10-20 (Bolden 3-3, Carter, Jr. 3-6, Stephens 2-3, Georges-Hunt 1-1, Heyward 1-2, Golden 0-5), Notre Dame 5-20 (Atkins 4-7, Connaughton 1-8, Burgett 0-1, Jackson 0-1, Vasturia 0-3). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Georgia Tech 34 (Carter, Jr. 10), Notre Dame 37 (Connaughton, Knight 8). Assists — Georgia Tech 16 (Georges-Hunt, Miller 3), Notre Dame 14 (Connaughton 6). Total Fouls — Georgia Tech 12, Notre Dame 10. A — 8,127.

Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (11) at right is guarded closely on an inbounds ball by Georgia Tech's Quinton Stephens Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, in an ACC game at Prucell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ via FTP